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Michael Bettencourt


The January 5, 2015, issue of the New Yorker had a profile article on Emerson Spartz, what the writer, Andrew Marantz, calls "the virologist."  What Spartz does with (and did, through a slew of prior websites), is present aggregated content in ways designed to get visitors to click on something, anything.  (A typical Dose headline is "See these 10 mug shots of real monsters; #5 will keep you up at night"). 


"Clickbait," another word for this practice, has a more felicitous cousin, "the curiosity gap" (Will Oremus at Slate also uses "share-bait"), but either term equals impulse-buying at the check-out counter, the trap that triggers a brain response like "I don't need it, I really don't have time to look at it, but, hey, why not, it's only a few minutes, and I really would like to see what's so horrible about #5."


Dose is about selling numbers (or "eyeballs" or "visitors") to advertisers for revenue.  Spartz is not worried about or interested in quality: "The ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it's quality." "Effective," "successful," and "good" are all words he swaps in and out, and in response to Marantz's request to name the most beautiful prose he had read, he replied, "A beautiful book?  I don't even know what that means.  Impactful, sure."


Spartz makes no apology about his business.  "We considered making Dose more mission-driven. Then I thought, rather than facing that dilemma every day -- what's going to get views versus what's going to create positive social impact? -- it would be simpler to just focus on traffic."


Spartz echoes a moviemaking adage: a good movie is one that gets made.  Questions about quality, "art," impact, and so on follow after, if they come up at all, and it's undeniable that any made movie employs hundreds of people and puts food on a lot of tables, just as any Upworthy-style website like Dose delivers millions of clickers to advertisers and businesses and does what a good capitalist enterprise is supposed to do.


Is Spartz wrong?  Is meme-driven behavior wrong, another slough of despond on the road to perdition?


I think that kind of questioning peters out quickly.  Not only does it sound like geezer-squawk, but we have just started this experiment of living in a digitizable world, and no one can foretell its effects and pay-offs (though many will claim they can).  It may bring dystopia or utopia or blandtopia, or it may lead to a world like the one in which we live, just a few hours more into the future.


Of more interest to me is a piece written by Sam Frank in the January 2015 issue of Harper's, titled "Power and Paranoia in Silicon Valley."  Frank writes an intricate article, not easily summarized, but its heart is an argument about what kind of software coding will provide earthly plenty and political liberty.  On one side are people like Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal with Elon Musk (now of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCity, and the Hyperloop). These "apocalyptic libertarians," as Frank calls them, "take it on faith that corporate capitalism, unchecked just a little longer, will bring about [an] era of widespread abundance."  Frank goes on to say that Thiel thinks this progress is threatened by the power of the "unthinking demos."


On the other side is Vitalik Buterin, who is working on a technology called Etherium, built around D.A.O.s, or "distributed autonomous organizations."  Buterin describes them as ways of "figuring out how we can deinstitutionalize power; how we can ensure that, while power structures do need to exist, that these power structures are modular and they disappear as soon as they're not wanted anymore." 


For example, as Frank notes, using a D.A.O., a group of friends or strangers, living in a neighborhood or around the world, could set up a mutual-aid society without involving an insurance company.  They could even create a community digital currency, distributed equally among all members, and a digital voting system blockchained to ensure transparency as well as accept new members to expand the robustness of the enterprise and the usefulness of the community currency.


In other words, "decentralized contracts might become the building blocks of many decentralized forms of human governance, along libertarian or perhaps anarchist lines."


Both groups believe that "math, perfect information, and market mechanisms" can outflank the mess and grind of politics. They also believe that values and rules can be, and have to be, encoded in software as humans blend more and more into the digital networks around them (not as cyborgs but certainly as hybrids). Where they differ is here: Thiel believes in the power of an elite to lead this cultural transition to digitality, while Buterin sees the leader in Thiel's vilified "demos." 


Dear reader, you are right to hear echoes here of past arguments about vanguards versus proles as the true source of transformative political power in a world of transformative technologies.  What interests me most about this debate's current iteration is the reliance on code and coding -- rational operational languages -- to both mimic and create human values, human agency, and human improvisation. 


(There is an affinity between coding and neuroscience, though probably far more sophisticated and intricate than equating soft-tissue neural networks with chained "if-then" statements. But they will mash-up sooner rather than later as coding becomes more biological and researchers distill the math underneath the neurons.)


Metaphors always mold the humans using them to describe their realities -- as the saying goes, To a man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.  "Coding" and "software" are no less narrowing as metaphors of human behavior, but their balancing virtue is that they can ground arguments about technical changes in our lives and de-vaporize sentimentality about our human nature.


Each of us is a "coded" world (think of our DNA) living in a world governed by codes (ferreted out by exotic math like chaos theory).  We are only at the start of seeing the codes' intricacies and overlaps, but unknotting them is mostly an operational act: faster computers to crunch more numbers using devilishly complex algorithms with swirling feedback loops and so on and so on.


Interpreting what the codes find, though, will still involve political conflict.  Thiel and Buterin are wrong in thinking that the perfect mix of math, information, and market will bypass or delete political wrangling.  Even the "cyberpunks, cypherpunks, extropians, transhumanists, and singularitarians" will still live in a material world of roiling emotions and hate-filled loyalties and fights over resources, with political power housed in human bodies who hunger, thirst, desire, and dream.  They may bray that politics is just an engineering problem and humans are just a gear-house of tuned atoms and forces, but braying it doesn't make it so.


If I were a coder, I'd find a way to integrate political conflict into, not out of, the equations, as a force equal to all other primary inputs. And not a defanged politics but one that goes for the barricades.  A vitalized politics is the only thing that can counterweight the "virality" so prized by the super-rich silicon libertarians and their marketeers as their preferred means of controlling and disciplining the demos.


The New Yorker is fond of cartoons with a human or two stranded on a desert island with a single palm tree, and they prove a human reality: the only world where politics does not exist is the single human being on an island.  Once a second body enters the space, the political dance begins about the palm tree and its coconuts and the best plan for getting rescued.


But far from being an error in the design, the dance provides another "code" by which we craft our human selves.  Pushing against resistance makes a muscle strong, and the human brain needs contrasts in order to map edges and paths and possibilities that will keep the human brain (and the body that houses it) alive and kicking.


Let us defer the dys/u/blandtopia for a few more hours: resist the clickbait and begin to in-code your own freedom.

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May 2015

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |





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